(James Gandolfini once told me: "Use your contacts to do good." I make it a habit to follow Jim's advice.)
In 1999, when I left Germany to attend Carnegie Mellon University, my dream was to return as soon as possible and join my mentor, master watchmaker Gerd-Ruediger Lang, in the company he founded, Chronoswiss. Before I flew to Pittsburgh, Ruediger encouraged me to start a small watch brand "so that you can make mistakes and learn from them to better prepare you for your time with my company". The folks at CMU didn't mind having a freshman start a watch brand and in return only asked of me that I retell the story of Kobold to any journalists they brought my way in an effort to promote the university. The head of marketing at CMU was a woman whose name I unfortunately forgot and unsuccessfully tried to research, but she had a knack of cajoling journalists from across the United States to include snippets about little Kobold Watch, with its retro flair and mechanical watches, in their stories of sexy, highly scalable dot-coms that originated out of CMU.
At the time, there were no watch companies left in the U.S. except for giants Timex and Fossil, a tiny outfit in Florida called Krieger and RGM, a watch repair shop that also sold a fistful of watches a year under its own brand name. To the PR lady from CMU, to have a new upstart in this rather dusty, decaying field of business, was exciting. "Normally we expect a new company originating here to give 50% of its shares to the university, but in your case we'll make an exception. You tell a good story and your watches are beautiful," the PR agent said once. As long as I remained enrolled in classes full-time and maintained good grades, I would be permitted to run Kobold.
(Above: The first Kobold watch was the Endurance A.)
These circumstances inform the four main elements of the Kobold brand DNA: First, because I was a full-time student and Carnegie Mellon a rigorous institution, Kobold has basically always been a side project for me (I was coached to refer to the company in media interviews as a "university-supported class project spanning several semesters"). Second, Kobold, from the very start and due entirely to the PR lady's tenacity, was able to receive an unprecedented amount of media coverage. Telling the story, it would turn out, became just as important to the success of Kobold as designing and making beautiful watches - the third main element in the Kobold brand DNA.
The final core part of Kobold DNA was doing the right thing for people in need. Unlike the other three elements, this philosophy didn't become part of the Kobold DNA by design - not some corporate jargon encapsulating a desire to use profits to change the world - but purely by chance. I must have been doing lots of good things for other people at Carnegie Mellon, because the university created an award to commend my civic actions during my years there - the Good Citizen Award. "This belongs to you as much as it belongs to your company," my entrepreneurship professor, Jack Roseman, told me when he handed me the award. Years after I graduated, Professor Roseman would still tell people about how he convinced CMU's top brass to create the award.
As a student, I could not know then that Kobold would continue to be in business over 22 years later. At the time, I fully expected to finish my studies at Carnegie Mellon as quickly as possible and return to Germany to work alongside my mentor. This explains why I was able to finish my degree in economics in just three years.
Things in life have a way of not working out as planned, I discovered. After many trials and tribulations, and after successfully scaling Mount Everest in 2009, I returned to Germany and met up with Ruediger, my mentor. The financial crisis had decimated his business, along with the rest of the watch industry, and so the prospect of me joining him diminished rather rapidly. Kobold, meanwhile, had begun blazing the trail for dozens of new entrants into the field of American watches.
As the original stalwarts of the new American watch scene, RGM and Kobold were in a race to produce the first "American-made watch" in 40 years (Hamilton Watch Co., the last American watch manufacturer, closed its doors in 1969). Yet, to me, Kobold was somehow still more an elaborate side project. Now that working at Ruediger's esteemed company was no longer in the cards, I returned to Pittsburgh and contemplated what to do with the growing watch brand. Just making money alone wasn't palatable to me, I was seeking more fulfillment. The luxury goods industry, especially, is often shallow and preoccupied with image rather than substance. I was 30, highly successful and suffering from an identity crisis!
James Gandolfini, the late actor and Kobold ambassador, was the closest friend and confidante I ever had - a man of unparalleled wisdom and intellect, as well as a giant heart. Whenever I had problems I couldn't figure out on my own, I'd go and see Jim, especially if the problem involved a girl. This happened with some regularity. However, on my return from Germany, Jim could sense I was more concerned than usual.
"Kobold, you are able to do things other people can't. You just swoop in somewhere, basically whenever you like, and just get shit done. That's what makes you you. Not this watch thing. Don't let the watches define who you are. Let your actions outside of the watch company define you," Jim said during a late-night marathon movie session. This was rather uncharacteristic for my friend, who would regularly admonish me to pay attention to the film and to stop texting people on my phone.
The episode revealed how much thought Jim gave to a question I had asked him days earlier, regarding what I should do with my life and with Kobold. "You see, I am an actor. A successful actor. That's not normal, you know, most actors don't make it. Not like this. But even with all the success, I'm not free. I'm not able to do the things I want to do. Most people aren't able to do that. But you, you are free. If you want to help someone, you help them. You've helped me, you've helped a lot of other people. And then you just pick up and leave and do something else. It's what makes you, you!"
(Above: I introduced James Gandolfini to Joyce Dubenski of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a charity Kobold supported strongly. After Jim got involved, he convinced HBO to support the Tanenbaum Center.)
The company, Jim argued, was a springboard that allowed me to "do these things." With these things Jim meant working alongside Ranulph Fiennes and Simon Wiesenthal to track down a group of Nazi war criminals hiding from justice, starting a charity to support impoverished Holocaust survivors who were not supported by the German government's reparatory fund, and actively supporting various other charitable projects.
As Kobold's brand recognition grew, thanks in part to well-designed, finely crafted and reliable watches, an abundance of high-profile media coverage and a very costly ad campaign featuring Jim and his extended middle finger, I realized that one day I might be able to use this fame and glory for some greater purpose. Jack Roseman, whenever we met, would tell me "I expect great things from you." I always sensed that Professor Roseman didn't have watches in mind.
James Gandolfini said: "You know all of these important people. Use your contacts to do good in the world, Kobold."
But do what?
The answer came in 2015. In January of that year I woke up in Hawaii with the strongest urge to do something that I have ever felt - that urge was to help Nepal. In what way? I didn't know yet. But I did know that the former U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, was set to retire soon and I also knew that Scott loved Nepal at least as much I do. It's good to have allies when you want to help an entire country and so, keeping Jim Gandolfini's advice in mind, I enlisted Scott to run a non-profit I founded: The Soarway Foundation. Against the advice of my attorneys, the organization was chartered with just one mission: To help Nepal. Eventually, Soarway's slogan "Engage Nepal" would morph into the actual name of the organization.
Today, Ambassador DeLisi and his team at Engage Nepal continue to do amazing work all over that small Himalayan country, but back in 2015 none of us could know that two back-to-back earthquakes and an economic blockade would soon cripple Nepal. Engage Nepal's forerunner, Soarway Foundation, was founded two weeks before the first massive earthquake. At the same time, I was working feverishly with a team of experts to put together an overland expedition to Nepal involving an American fire engine. Once the first earthquake hit, our preparations went into overdrive. Soon, we had a roster of international A-list celebrities willing to join the expedition to Nepal. Several major media organizations agreed to cover the adventure, and a group of U.S. Navy SEALs -some retired, some active duty- volunteered to join us to ensure our safety, Nepal's roads not being for the faint of hearted.
"Use your contacts to do good."
At the same time, Kobold was straining under the huge costs of building a new headquarters in Amish Country, an hour north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and vertically integrating the process of manufacturing watch cases. A more prudent approach might have been to let Nepal slide and focus only on the company. Then, after all the proverbial fires had been put out, to revisit the extracurricular activities involving fire trucks and Nepal. However, the fire truck expedition was set to take a few months to organize and a week or two to conduct. The second earthquake in May 2015 only further galvanized the support for the project among celebrities, media reps, SEALs and other expedition members, and so I decided to capitalize on this wave of goodwill.
In my worst-case scenario, I would be back at Kobold in December that year
Nepal's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Dr. Arjun Karki, and I became fast friends and worked closely together to make the preliminary arrangements with the Government of Nepal to clear the firefighting vehicles into Nepal. Making donations to a Third World country is never a straight-forward process. Bribes must be paid in order for anything even remotely administrative to happen. I explained to Ambassador Karki that I couldn't pay anyone any bribes because of the U.S. Federal Corrupt Practices Act. "I have to make sure I can keep living in the States, Ambassador, I don't want to get kicked out for violating this law. Everything we do must be 100% above board." Ambassador Karki understood and gave me his assurance that the process would not be complicated.
When I told Richard Ragan, the head of Nepal operations of the United Nations, that the Nepalese embassy in Washington ensured that the administrative process would be stress-free, he said: "That's nonsense, nothing in Nepal is ever easy. It's the most complicated, difficult place in the world to get anything done."
This, I discovered, was a masterful understatement.
(Above: Nepal's Ambassador Dr. Arjun Karki (far right) visiting Kobold HQ in Amish Country. We demonstrated the effectiveness of our fire engines to Dr. Karki. Years later, the Indian embassy in Kathmandu instructed its unofficial mouthpiece, the Kathmandu Post, to run a smear campaign against me. One of the countless lies printed by the Post is that Dr. Karki doesn't know me and had only heard about the fire truck expedition. In fact, Dr. Karki and I were close collaborators in the quest to stop the Indian blockade. We remain good friends to this day.)
In September 2015, I left Pittsburgh for Nepal. I sensed that something was amiss at Kobold, but I couldn't identify the problem beyond the obvious. After massive setbacks, the case production was now well underway, customers whose orders weren't shipped because of the delays caused by the case production set-up were finally starting to receive their watches, a new Chief Operating Officer was at Kobold's helm. Cash flow issues caused by the massive construction costs and setting up the case manufacturing facility would soon be over, October through December historically being the most lucrative months for the company.
There was still something else, however. As an entrepreneur, I had long learned to trust my gut feeling. Better hurry up with the fire truck expedition and get back to Kobold, I thought to myself as the plane took off.
Yet as soon as the trip began, the undertaking came to an abrupt halt - the first in a countless string of major delays!
"India has put on a blockade," a Nepalese friend warned me, "you better stay in Bangkok until things calm down. They say it will only last two more weeks. Apparently the Indians aren't happy with our new constitution."
When I did finally land in Kathmandu, a bustling dust bowl of a city usually clogged with traffic, life had ground to a halt, with no end in sight for India's economic blockade.
Barely four months earlier, the country had been rocked by the second earthquake, which brought the total number of destroyed buildings in the two natural disaster to a million. Yet now Nepalis couldn't find construction supplies, because thousands of trucks were being prevented by Indian officials from passing through any of the crossings along the 1,100 mile border Nepal shares with India. All of Nepal's fuel and most vital supplies are imported from India, too, resulting in India's government further tightening its iron grip on Nepal by way of the blockade.
Nepal's mountains are the highest in the world, even in summer it can be freezing cold up in the high Himalayas. I knew this from my Everest years and had heard many stories of brutal winter months. When the blockade continued through November, causing millions of Nepalese -made homeless by the two earthquakes- to freeze and suffer, I made a fateful decision: To remain in Nepal in order to document the blockade and to marshal any resources available through my network of high-powered individuals to aid the people of Nepal. James Gandolfini's words, seared in my memory, now carried more weight than ever before.
"Use your contacts to do good."
When Nepal's Ambassador Karki arrived in Kathmandu, he asked me to accompany him to a meeting with his top boss and one of the main protagonists in what would turn out to be a Cold War between India and Nepal: Prime Minister K.P. Oli. Prime Minister Oli told us that he had personally spoken about the blockade with India's Narendra Modi, the hard-right prime minister infamous for ordering a pogrom against the Muslim population in his home state of Gujarat that resulted in thousands of deaths, I knew that it was Modi who was behind the blockade.
At the time - and even years later - the official line of the Government of India was that the blockade didn't exist and that there were merely "Nepalese protesters on the Nepal side of the border causing an obstruction". What the Indian propaganda machine failed to mention were several facts my team and I documented on camera:
+ in addition to Indian border guards preventing any trucks from passing through the check points, there were repeated instances of Indian border guards crossing into Nepal and beating their Nepalese counterparts for trying to remove the protesters from No-Man's-Land
+ those protesters being either Indian nationals who were brought in by Indian agents to stage a protest, and/or
+ the protesters were paid by Indian agents.
Ambassador Karki, Prime Minister Oli and I made a plan: To use the fire truck expedition, with all of its celebrity participants and media prowess, to blow the lid off the secret Indian blockade. I knew we could count on the Navy SEALs to keep us safe, but Prime Minister Oli, as adept in public relations as if he graduated from Carnegie Mellon, said "the Nepalese Army will escort your expedition. I will fly to the border by helicopter to welcome you to Nepal. The cameras will be there. There will be no more doubt who is behind the blockade."
All of this was secret, so I couldn't inform my colleagues at Kobold or the company's customers what I was doing. Officially, I was still only working on the fire truck expedition, so to many it seemed as if I was on a grand vacation, staying in a five-star hotel. The reality couldn't have been more different: The Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu is the only place with adequate security for someone taking on the Government of India head-on, wishing to get at least a few hours of sleep after a long day. The days consisted of interviewing people about the blockade, countless meetings with government officials to prepare the expedition's arrival, travel across the country by helicopter and Land Rover to document the blockade's effects.
My website, www.michaelkobold.com, features several detailed accounts of the time during the blockade, so for purposes of this article, here, I will skip ahead to the end of the blockade, which was brought about in no small measure through the actions of Prime Minister Oli, Ambassador Karki and me.
Fortunately, I had the forethought to document all of this on camera with the express permission of Prime Minister Oli, because the story of what happened is so fantastical that not even the most forgiving fan of the Kobold brand could be expected to easily believe it.
Nepal is a country of some 30 million people and approximately 1.5 times the size of Austria. According to a prominent, western-educated healthcare professional, the Indian government's cowardly action killed at least 10,000 Nepalese in the high mountain areas due to hypothermia and other ailments stemming from the blockade. Millions more suffered through bitter cold winter months. Ask any Nepalese anyplace on earth and they will tell you that the blockade was far worse than the two earthquakes - the worst natural disasters in Nepal's history.
When the Indian government lifted the secret and illegal blockade in the middle of February of 2016, I was back at Kobold, outside of Pittsburgh. I found the company in worse shape than when I had left in September the previous year. This, despite the fact that watch cases were flying out of the brand new and very costly CNC machines. "The customers are yelling at us all the time, they want their watches," Kobold's COO said. As a result, unbeknownst to me, she and the rest of the team had stopped answering the phones for fear of being berated by unhappy customers. I was incensed. "You did what? You stopped taking calls? Before and during Christmas? Are you crazy? No wonder we didn't sell more. And so what if they yell at you, it will make you stronger. Besides, they're not yelling at me when I call them." I was furious. The COO began to cry.
I then spent a week doing nothing except troubleshooting at Kobold. What I discovered was harrowing. Watches that had been packaged up, ready to be picked up by the courier, had moisture or even water droplets under the crystal. Crown and stem assemblies fell out of the case. Tiny screws were rattling inside the movement. A complete disaster! My solution was in the form of a 15-point check list that had to be co-signed by the person assembling the watch and the COO. Elementary.
The next elementary step was to show the team at Kobold how to fill an order in as little time as possible. When we got this time down to a few days for a custom Soarway Diver Seal, I was satisfied. "You must do exactly what I have shown you, I need to go back to Nepal. Don't fuck up!"
Every human being has a right to exist, but a company doesn't have this right. I reminded the team of this over and over again. "If we can't make solid, reliable watches, then we shouldn't be in business. And if you guys keep letting the customers and me down, I will have no option but to close Kobold." In hindsight, this warning had little effect. Instead, my former colleagues used the opportunity generated by my absence to continue looting the company of its money and inventory.
Yet instead of staying in the States to salvage what was left of Kobold, I flew back to Nepal and continued to work on a project that was, at least at that point in time, far more important than making watches. "We can always make more watches, but we can't bring back lives," I said to myself.
During the previous months working on documenting the blockade, I had learned from a number of top-level officials of the Nepalese government, including its prime minister, as well as foreign diplomats, that the Indian government's longterm goal of breaking Nepal apart had been sped up dramatically and that the blockade had been part of this effort.
A reasonable assumption to make is that documenting and unveiling this conspiracy is the duty of investigative journalists and not that of a watch manufacturer from Amish Country via Germany. Nepal, however, defies logic and so all reasonable assumptions might as well be thrown off a mountaintop.
As I discovered, the Indian embassy in Kathmandu has very deep pockets - it's the biggest operation the Indian government maintains outside of India. On its payroll are countless journalists, including at least two working for western news outlets. Anyone trying to expose India's illicit game in Nepal is fair game for all sorts of reprisals, including character assassinations of proportions unknown in the western world, physical harassment and even murder. I found myself in the unique and fortunate position of not being a journalist and being mistaken for a CIA officer by someone no less than the Indian ambassador himself.
The CIA and India's intelligence agency, R&AW, have close ties but animosities exist even among the best of friends and so I wasn't surprised when an actual CIA officer told me that the Indians had started asking questions about me. "There are some people here who don't like you, either," my contact told me, referring to his own colleagues. "It might be better if you stopped working here for a while," the person told me, and after a moment of contemplation continued "if you stay, you can count on my support." That person was later abruptly removed from post, along with every other U.S. diplomat I had interacted with during my time in Kathmandu.
It is important at this point to understand that I had worked on a number of freelance intelligence assignments on behalf of the U.S., and that all of these assignments were unrelated to Nepal. Remember the part about Kobold being an elaborate side project? The president of Shinola, Jacques Panis, wasn't too far off when he bluntly told his colleagues over dinner at the Park Hyatt Tokyo "Kobold is a CIA front."
So to the average intelligence officer, through my actions in Nepal, I might have looked like an asset who had gone off the reservation - gone native is the technical term. I also understood that the likelihood of my actions being mistaken in this manner were not small, and so with each time I visited the U.S. I began to worry about whether I wouldn't be safer living in my native Germany.
But for the time being, with the help of friends, I continued working on unearthing all manner of India's dirty business inside Nepal, all the while still trying to get the fire truck expedition off the ground.
By December 2018, my team and I had struck an agreement with the Nepal Tourism Board to bring the firefighting vehicles to Nepal using a balance of U.S. $100,000 owed to me for work I had done on behalf of Nepal Tourism. After exhausting all other resources to bring the fire truck expedition to a positive conclusion, this deal was a major breakthrough.
At the same time, I received repeated warnings from friends to "leave Nepal immediately, before it is too late!" Two weeks after my hasty departure, the unofficial mouthpiece of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, the Kathmandu Post ran the biggest smear campaign against a non-Nepali in the country's history and the Nepal Tourism Board, under pressure from interlocutors close to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, withdrew its support for the deal we had struck
It took nine months to sift through the hundreds of hours of footage and hundreds more hours of tape recordings, to make a rough cut version of two films that tell the tale of the blockade and of India's machinations inside Nepal. I then began a campaign, called "Roast the Post" to expose the Kathmandu Post's illegal dealings by releasing hitherto unpublished information about its ties to the Indian embassy and its owner's mafia business dealings, including a protection payment racket. "Roast the Post" ended after the Kathmandu Post's editor-in-chief resigned and left Nepal.
Meanwhile, a young watchmaker from Pittsburgh in the employ of Breitling helped me piece together what little was left of my company. The employees had long gone, over $2 million in inventory along with them. Left without funds to pay even the most basic legal bills, I decided to invest what little money I had to restart Kobold.
Second, Nepal's Prime Minister K.P. Oli is now the longest-serving prime minister in Nepal's history and has seen through a number of infrastructure projects of national importance that the Indian government has for decades tried to block - the people of Nepal are better off for it.
Finally, as Kobold regains its strength, every last customer inconvenienced by what happened will be compensated in some form. Those who complained the least and put up with the adversity will obviously be rewarded more handsomely than those who sought to exact revenge by way of mean-spirited public reviews.
Even the most unreasonable and opportunistic customer, who simply jumped on the bandwagon of negativity against Kobold, will get a small token of my personal appreciation. By the time we're done with this campaign to make up for past sins, in the history of watchmaking no company will have given away more to its customers than Kobold.
And with that, Ladies and Gentlemen, Kobold is back.
Why should Kobold be back? Why not let it die and move on? The answer is very simple: Because no company on earth would have risked everything, stopped everything, done everything to help the people of Nepal in their greatest hour of need. "Use your contacts to do good!"
Finally, I could afford to do what I did - Kobold was always an elaborate side project.
And if I was able to build something so successful "on the side" as Kobold was before the sabotage by its former employees, imagine what I will do now that I'm running Kobold full-time!